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Make Your Animations Less Ch-Ch-Choppy

Posted by chet on February 21, 2006 at 4:22 PM PST

This article is Part One of a 2-part series. In Part One, I look at some
of the problems contributing to choppy animations. In Part Two, Smooth
, I look at some of the possible solutions and offer a demo application
for trying out some of the results.

The Problem

I was working on some animation code the other day and ran into some artifacts
that made the animation look choppy. In this particular example, there were
both fading and moving/scaling animations. The fade looked great, but the
animation with movement looked stuttery. This was particularly odd since the
fade happened over the entire screen, whereas the scrolling animation occupied
only a small portion of the screen.

It seemed obvious that the fading animation must be quicker than the other one
and that we were hitting some performance bottleneck on the other animation.

I inserted some simple timing code in both animation loops to verify this easy
assumption. Strangely, I found that the fade was happening at a rate of about
10 frames per second (fps); not very fast, considering that minimal frame rates
for animation are usually considered to be 30 fps, although 60 fps is a more
usual minimal for highly interactive content such as games. Stranger still, I
found that the other animation was getting about 15-20 fps; faster than the
visually smoother fading animation.

So here was the quandary; why did the large fading animation with a lower frame
rate actually look better than the small scrolling animation with the higher
frame rate? It just didn’t compute.

I had stumbled, once again, across another example of perceived performance.
This topic comes up often in the GUI space, where the true performance of an
application is often not as important as how fast the user thinks it is. This
is why, for example, you should run your long non-graphical operations on a
separate thread from the GUI thread, so that if your app has to go out and
query the database for several seconds, at least the GUI is not frozen waiting
for that to finish. Make the application GUI snappy, and the user will be
happier with the performance of the application - even if the data takes
exactly the same time to actually populate the GUI. Perceived performance also
relates to the gray rect fix in Mustang
Scott Violet
blogged about; the application may not actually be any faster, but it
certainly looks faster to the user, and that’s worth a lot. In this case, I
perceived the fading animation to be more performant than the scrolling
animation simply because it looked smoother.

After this realization, I figured that it was time to investigate the factors
that could affect the smoothness of an animation; what makes an animation
appear choppy, and what could be done to reduce or eliminate the choppiness.

What Makes an Animation Choppy

There are various elements that contribute to choppy animations, some of which
were factors in my application, but all of which are worth considering whenever
you develop animation code.

I’ll break down the factors into three main categories: timing, color, and
vertical retrace.

1) Timing is (Nearly) Everything

In general, you want your animations to be speedy. I don’t mean that they should
zip across the screen as fast as possible (you have to give the player the
chance to actually hit the alien spaceship, don’t you?), but rather that the
animations should move quickly in small increments. There are various elements
related to the speed at which an animation can run: raw performance, framerate,
consistency, and realistic movement.


Raw performance is one of the most important factors affecting animation
smoothness, and probably the most obvious; if you run your animation faster, it
will tend to look smoother. This is because the amount of change between each
frame of your object is smaller, and thus the eye will tend to perceive the
steps as being smoother. The way to improve the performance of your
application is by making your rendering faster. Are you wasting time
drawing anything in a sub-optimal way? Are you drawing anything complex that
could be rendered into an
intermediate image
instead? Are you limiting your rendering to only the
area affected by the animation, or are you re-rendering the entire window? All
of these factors, and more, can contribute to slower rendering and, therefore,
a slower frame rate.


Framerate is closely related to Performance: You want to make the time between
sequential frames of your animation as short as possible. One way to
affect framerate is by improving the performance of your rendering code.
Another way is by running your animation at a different “resolution”. At the
core of your animation is a timer, which will kick off timing events at some
specified interval. You can set this timer up to call you every half-second,
which would result in a very unanimated animation running at a whopping 2
frames per second (fps). Or you can set it up to call you every 30
milliseconds, which would give you a more reasonable 30 fps (assuming your
rendering loop could do its job in that small window of time to maintain this
frame rate).


Ideally, you will have as small a timer resolution as possible so that your
animation can move to the next state very quickly. However, if there are some
states that require significantly more time to render, or if other things are
happening in your program that make this frame rate unachievable, then you will
end up with intermittent pauses in your animation. These pauses do not have to
be very long to be noticeable to the user. Let’s say that your animation runs
swimmingly at 30 fps most of the time, but takes a time hit of about 100 ms
every 4th frame. The net result is that the user would see your animation
run relatively smoothly and then pause and jump at frequent
intervals, several times per second.

It is far better to set a frame rate that you know is achievable in most
situations than to have a jumpy animation; an animation running at a consistent
20 fps is better than one running at 30 fps with occasional noticeable lags and

Related to consistency is using time-based animation, rather than speed-based
animations. A very simple approach to animation is to update the animation
state to the next step the next time you are called. This works on systems
where timing is very predictable, but breaks down when you run on different
systems, or when things happen to perturb the timing between steps. It is far
better to base your animation state on the time that has elapsed; that way the
animation will always proceed in a logical fashion, regardless of how much time
passes between steps. I discuss this more in the “Animation Fraction” section
of Timing is

Realistic timing

The simplest motion to calculate is linear interpolation. That is,
for any fraction of the elapsed animation, you might move the object by that
fraction between the starting and ending points of the animation. It's
easy in code:

                x = x0 + (x1 - x0) * fraction

Unfortunately, this results in a movement that looks pretty unnatural to
humans; we simply don't live in a linearly-interpolated world. With effects
like gravity, anticipation, acceleration, deceleration, and (in my case)
stumbling, we're used to objects moving with a much different feel than a
linearly-interpolated animation would display.

The other problem with linear interpolation is that it is very easy to detect
inconsistencies in movement in strictly linear movement; if an object is moving
at a constant rate and pauses briefly, this will be quite obvious to the user.
If, on the other hand, the object is moving in a non-linear fashion (such as
accelerating), it will be more difficult to detect slight differences in

2) Color: What’s the Difference?

I think the Timing section above details probably the most obvious element here: if
you want to make your animation look better, run it faster, with smaller
incremental steps, at a consistent and realistic rate. This next section is about a factor that is
perhaps less obvious, but one which contributed greatly to the choppiness I was seeing in
my particular application.

The apparent smoothness of an animation is strongly related to the rate of
change of the pixel colors affected. That is, the display pixels affected by
each of the animations in my application (the pixels being modulated in the
fade and those being altered as the scrolling animation moved across the
window) were changing at some rate, and that rate was perceived to be smoother
in the case of the fading animation.

Let's take a step back and think about what makes an animation smooth in
general. It's pretty simple to understand that having a higher frame rate will
give (or render, if you're one for topical and dull puns) a smoother
animation. Imagine trying to animate an image from the left side of this page
to the right over the course of one second. You could simply move it from left
to right in one step; the image sits over on the left until the animation
begins, at which time you erase it from the left side and draw it on the right
side. You've just animated that movement at an enormous 1 frame per second. Of
course it's only “animated” in the technical sense; it didn't really animate at
all, it just performed a single movement.

I think you'll agree that that animation would be just a bit choppy.

Let's try for something a little better. Let's divide the distance into 10
steps and perform the animation by moving the image a smaller distance in each of those steps, ending up at the same place as before. This looks a little better; at
least it looks like the image is moving this time, instead of just appearing in
the new place. Now we're getting a more reasonable ten frames per second, which
is a rate that at least allows us to consider it an animation ... but it's
still pretty choppy.

Now let's take it up another order of magnitude; imagine dividing the space
into 100 equal parts, and doing the same as before, where we copy the image to
each of these places along the way toward the final goal. Now we're
getting somewhere; the image is moving much more smoothly than before,
at a rate of 100 frames per second. You may still notice some choppiness (due
to the same factors that I'll get to eventually here), but you can at least
consider this an animation. And if the image was an evil droid sprite, you
might even be inclined to crank up your power blaster and nail the sucker.

What made this image movement an “animation” was increasing the frame rate, and
decreasing the amount of movement per interval, so that each step was small
enough that overall movement began to appear smooth. This interval
decreasing was done in the time and space dimensions (decreasing the time
between steps and the space between each movement). Now imagine doing the same
for color.

In particular, think about the color of each of the pixels being affected by an
animation. How much do they change between each step? Do we have large numbers
of pixels changing drastically every step? Or small numbers of pixels
undergoing minor changes each time?

In the first case above, where we moved the object from the left to the right
in one single frame, we changed all of the pixels in the place the object came
from (we erased them to the background color) and in the place the object moved
to (we colored them from the background color to the image color). That's
a lot of pixels that underwent significant change in one step. In the final
animation, however, where we moved the object gradually from the left to the
right, the only pixels affected in each step were those on the leading and
trailing edges of the object. The changes to those pixels may have been just as
drastic (which is what makes that final animation still look choppy), but the
fact that there were far less pixels affected by each step made the animation
appear much more smooth than the first attempt.

In order to smooth out an animation, we want to minimize the amount
of color change per pixel in each step of the animation. Let's think about
the original animation comparison. In the fading animation of my application,
each pixel was modulating between the original color and the new color at a
rate of 10 frames per second. In the extreme case of a pixel moving between
black ((0,0,0) in RGB space) and white ((255, 255, 255) in RGB space), the
change for every step would be 10% of that color difference, or (25.6, 25.6,
25.6). We can calculate this Euclidean distance in RGB space as sqrt(25.6^2 +
25.6^2 + 25.6^2) = 44.34. Meanwhile, the moving animation was
changing pixels between the background color and the object color in one step
(for however many pixels were affected in each step of that animation). In the
extreme case (black object and white background), pixels would change as much
as (256, 256, 256) in each step, for a Euclidean distance of ten times the
fading amount, or 443.4 in RGB space.

One of the interesting things to me in this investigation is that the amount of
change of individual pixels appears to have much more visual impact that the amount
of change overall. That is, a large color change happening in a small number of
pixels is far more detectable than a small change happening in a large number
pixels. In the fading case, that animation took over the entire 800x800
window. If that animation were running at 10 frames per second fading
from black to white, this means there would have been 640,000 pixels changing
by 44.34 each frame in RGB space. You would think that all of that color
change would be pretty easily detectable by our eyes. Meanwhile, the scrolling
animation affected only a tiny portion of the window in comparison; the
animation happened in an area of about 200x50, or about 10,000 pixels total.
Also, the scrolling animation did not affect every pixel in that area, since it
just involved some objects shifting slightly every time. Assuming that the
scrolling animation affected only a quarter of the pixels in that
region, this means that there were only about 2,500 pixels affected
each frame. In the extreme black-white case again, we have a color change of
443.4 in RGB space for each of these pixels. So that's 44.34/pixel for
640,000 pixels versus 443.4/pixel for 2,500 pixels. By numbers alone, it
seems like the fade is much more significant. Nevertheless, the fade
looked far smoother than the scrolling animation.

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb here in claiming that the rate of
change of any single pixel is more significant than the total change over a
group of pixels. If you've got a whole screen of a million pixels changing by
just one incremental color value, that will be far less noticeable than a
single pixel flickering betwen black and white in the middle of the screen. If
you imagine it this way, I think you'll agree; that huge change of a single
pixel's color value is far more discernible to our eyes.

Maybe it comes from our ability to edge-detect very well. Or our carnivore
instinct, evolved through millenia of hunting flickery pixels in
the wastelands of Cro-Magnon times. I have no idea, but I do know that’s
what it looks like, and in graphics it’s all about how it looks.

3) Vertical Retrace: That Syncing Feeling

Another major factor that I noticed in my animations is the impact of the
“vertical retrace” of the display.

A typical computer display (traditional CRT or modern LCD
display) will update the screen from video memory at some frequency (typically
60 Hz for LCD isplays, and typically anywhere from 60-90 Hz for CRTs). You can
think of this as a linear process where every pixel on the screen is updated
one-by-one, left-to-right and top-to-bottom. It’s done so fast and seamlessly
that you would not usually notice this happening. But fast animations on the
screen can cause an artifact called “tearing” that make vertical retrace an

Imagine that the vertical retrace is in the middle of
refreshing the screen, and it happens to be refreshing the pixels in the area
where you are copying pixels to the screen. The effect will be that the pixels
below and to the right of the refresh location will show up in their new
location, but the pixels to the left and above that location will still be
shown in their old location; this is because the refresh is only updating the
pixels to the right and below on this refresh. This effect does not last long;
it lasts exactly until the next refresh, which is in 1/60th of a second for an
LCD display. Since the artifact is not permanent, you might not even notice or
be disturbed by it. But if you are animating things constantly, and if those
animations are happening in large increments, then the tearing will be so
obvious that this will add to any perception of a choppy animation.

It might be easier to see this effect with a picture.

Suppose we are trying to move our image between frame n and frame n+1 like so:


Now suppose that the vertical retrace (represented by the red line below) is
happening right in the middle of this area as we are doing this copy:


The net result is that the user will see “Frame 2” as having a broken object in
it very quickly, until it is fixed by the next refresh.

The problem here is that copies to the screen do not, by default, pay any
attention to the state of the vertical retrace process, so it is entirely
possible, even likely, that animations will run into this rather jarring (if
transient) artifact.


Now for the cliff-hanger: please check out the article Smooth Moves on for the stunning
conclusion of this series. That article examines possible
solutions to the color difference and vertical retrace problems, and offers
an applet and sample code the demonstrates both the problems and solutions.

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